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No Bounds
Three openings from this weekend, from a powerhouse Ragtime to a Bollywood Fidelio.


Gavin Gregory as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (photo by Michael Brosilow)

It has Broadway veterans, an Olivier-winning choreographer, soaring vocalists, and historical celebrities. But the real star of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s stirring production of Ragtime is the Rep’s Powerhouse Theatre. That intimate space—and the brilliant way it is used by director Mark Clements, Choreographer Stephen Mear, and set designer Todd Edward Ivins—is what makes this show remarkable, and likely remarkably different from any Broadway production and revival of the show you may have seen.

With limited overhead space, The Powerhouse is not an easy stage to work with—there’s no space to bring scenery down from above. Staging a story that moves between dozens of locations, things get very challenging indeed. Clements and his designers, however, clear the decks, opening up the stage for maximum square footage, using two small balconies on the side of the proscenium and two giant scaffolds that swing in from the wings to suggest some of the several places we see in E.L. Doctorow’s story of New York City in the early 20th century.

But for much of the show, the stage is a blank slate—or, better yet, an empty piece of real estate, a telling spatial metaphor for a show about various groups and people making their claims on the American Dream. It’s used to dramatic effect in the dazzling opening dance number, where the cohorts that drive the story—privileged whites, Jewish immigrants and African-Americans—make their entrances and eventually coexist (uneasily) as they move about the stage. Costumed by Alex Tacoma and choreographed by Mear, it’s a swirl of color, dance and culture that viscerally embodies the New York City melting pot of the story. Because of the configuration of the Powerhouse, we don’t see it through the picture frame of a proscenium theatre, we’re in the middle of it, jostling for space and identity just as the characters stake their own claims.

Ragtime is still a Big, Broadway Musical—a show of large ambitions that tries for nothing less than capturing The American Experience in less than three hours of color and excitement. The cast assembled by Clements are thrilling performers, and the score gives them plenty of chances to thrill. And thrill. It’s the kind of show where almost every song is pushed to a show-stopping climax. (On Sunday night, some of the Broadway “belters” in the cast needed their mike levels adjusted to avoid wince-inducing power notes.) It’s not surprising that the simplest, quietest moments are the ones that stuck with me: The lovely duet featuring Mother (Carmen Cusack) and Tateh (Josh Landay) about children and the passage of time. And the slow, meditative scenes with Coalhouse Walker at the piano, dancers moving in the shadowy recesses of the stage.

But Clements’ Ragtime isn’t just about these moments. The beauty and power of the show lies in his fresh ways of imagining and visualizing life at the beginning of the American Century. It’s an impressive achievement, and one that anyone who loves great theater shouldn’t miss.

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Chris Besch, Cassandra Black and Erica Schuller in Skylight Opera's "Fidelio." (photo by Mark Frohna)

In his director’s notes to the Skylight Theatre’s new production of Fidelio, Viswa Subbaraman writes about how this take on Beethoven’s only opera reflects “his own personal revolution.” At issue is the schism between East and West, and how it has played out in an artist with Indian roots who has chosen a career in “Western” music. He breaks down the barriers in a production that stages Fidelio in the style of Bollywood musicals.

It makes sense. As Subbaraman points out in his notes, both forms are less-than-realistic music dramas, in which characters break into song because—well because that’s what they do. He could have further made the point that Fidelio’s blend of sublime music and clunky narrative and melodrama give it a further kinship with Bollywood, which sets its generic storylines in a swirl of bold color and elaborate dance numbers.

Subbaraman’s production is often a joy to watch, thanks to Raghava KK’s deliriously colorful setting—Henri Rousseau crossed with Dr. Seuss—along with Noel Stollmack’s lighting and Karen Brown-Larimore vibrant costumes.

More important, it’s a joy to listen to. Subbaraman himself conducted (as he will in several Skylight productions), and drew some lovely, sensitive moments out of the production’s 16-piece orchestra—the quietly tender accompaniment to the prisoners’ chorus, for example. And the singing was often glorious, particularly in Beethoven’s much loved trio and quartets. In the early quartet, “Mir is so wunderbar,” the intertwining lines were beautifully balanced and phrased, with Erica Schuller (playing Marzelline) leading the way. As the lead couple, Cassandra Black (Leonore) and Chase Taylor (Florestan) delivered some knock out moments, though Taylor’s vocal power sometimes interfered with the suppleness of his part’s vocal lines.

So does a Bollywood Fidelio “work”? Well, yes and no. Typically, opera directors rethink the setting of a classic to make it fresh, and to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences. The Fidelio currently in the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera is set in the mid-20th centuryand a recent production by the Opera de Lyon sets it in outer space. Skylight audiences familiar with Bollywood cinema—even casually—will appreciate the connections, and see the charm of dancing couples acting out the emotions of the love songs, and the love of spectacle common to both art forms. The biggest challenge for me, however, was sensing the disparity between the disciplines. Almost all of the cast was on stage because of their singing talent, which they no doubt spent years developing. The movement, however, was mostly new to them—even with the talented teacher choreographer Deepa Devasena leading the ensemble, it seemed added on, tangential to the emotions of the story. That was no doubt partly due to my own familiarity with Western opera “emoting,” but it seemed foreign to the performers, as well. That said, this Fidelio is a bold and satisfying experiment, and one well worth experiencing.

~

Mary MacDonald Kerr in "The Detective's Wife."  (photo by Mark Frohna)

Keith Huff was born in Wisconsin, made his career as a playwright in Chicago, and has since gone on to be a big player in prestige cable dramas like Mad Men. In fact, while he was able to visit Milwaukee Chamber Theatre at the first rehearsal of The Detective’s Wife, he had to miss the opening weekend to attend the Emmy Awards—as one of the producers of the well-nominated House of Cards. It doesn’t take long into MCT’s fine production of his latest play (it premiered at Chicago’s Writer’s Theatre in 2011) to see why Huff’s work attracted Hollywood’s eye.

The story at the heart of The Detective’s Wife is the stuff of James Ellroy or Dennis Lehane novels—the good-and-evil gray zone of law enforcement and the brotherhood of police. But Huff puts an imaginative spin on the yarn by telling the story in retrospect—the only character we meet is Alice (Al) Conroy, the widow of a Chicago officer killed in the line of duty.

Which is why the play is subtitled “A Ghost Story,” and it’s why Shakespeare’s Hamlet merits a few references. Alice, a compulsive reader of boilerplate mystery novels—hallucinates that her husband appears to her and asks her to solve the mystery of his murder.

Al’s story is told with tidiness and efficiency. Huff zeroes in on a few tropes (like Hamlet) and weaves them throughout the play. She started a picture framing business after the kids left home, and the concept of “framing” is key to the big ideas that pepper the play’s narrative. The frame has to be just right, she says at the close of the first act. Too small, and you miss a detail. Too big, and it all becomes chaos.

Jim Tasse’s direction is rhythmically sure and filled with touches of wit. He’s helped in this production by other faculty from UW-Milwaukee’s Peck School, including imaginative projections by Chris Guse, which help us follow the clues as Al digs into the mystery.

It’s a great opportunity for Mary MacDonald Kerr, who wisely understates a role that other actors might overplay. It’s an engaging, and surprising story told with unexpected ease. But Kerr’s easygoing approach makes the closing twists land with deft and sure strike.

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